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Authors: G. Clifton Wisler

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BOOK: The Return of Caulfield Blake
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“I won't ask him to come, not to ride down here knowing that old man's sworn to see him dead.”

“Well, we've talked about us. We've talked about Simpson. What about Caulie?”

“Go on.”

“What will he feel when he learns there's been trouble and you didn't send word? You know where he's at?”

“He writes at Christmas. For the boys.”

“Joe Stovall saw him in Abilene. Was raisin' horses.”

“He's good at that.”

“Hannah, he's good at more'n that. He's the best man I ever knew at siftin' through a problem and findin' its root. And I never saw another man do so much with so little.”

“I don't know,” she said, shaking her head. “What right have I got to ask him to come back? When he needed me, I let him go.” She could feel her hands trembling. “Maybe he wouldn't come anyway. He's started a whole new life.”

“You know better. He never forgets you. All through the war, even when we were cold and hungry and almost out of hope, he never stopped talkin' about you.”

“That was a long time ago.”

“Was it?”

She closed her eyes and remembered that last time he'd stood beside her on the veranda, their hands intertwined. She'd prayed he wouldn't go.

“You don't have to do it,” she'd said. “No one will give you a medal or even thank you. The Yankees won't. They only use men like you to do the dirty work.”

“It's a duty.”

“The whole town will turn against us. The boys won't be welcome at school. I won't be able to hold my head up in church.”

“I have to, Hannah. I swore an oath.”

“Not to be a hangman. Not to kill Henry Simpson's son.”

“The law can't just be for Jody Morgan or Curtis French. It's got to be for everyone.”

“You care more for that badge, that fool piece of tin, than you do for us, for Carter and Zach and me.”

“It's not the badge,” he'd said, taking it off his coat. “I told you. I'll resign tomorrow. But I can't back down from an obligation.”

“It's only pride. Stubborn pride. Well, you go on and do your duty, Caulie. And afterward you find yourself another place to come home to because you won't be welcome here.”

“You don't mean that,” he'd said, leaning against the wooden bench. “Don't ask me to make that kind of a choice.”

“I don't have to,” Hannah had told him. “You already did.”

Marty'd sent word, how Caulie had lain in the street, his clothes torn and tattered, his face swollen with bruises. And she'd . . .

“Hannah, are you all right?” Dix asked, grabbing her as her legs gave way. “Hannah?”

“How can I write him?” she asked, her eyes ablaze with emotion. “How can I ask him to come back now when I wouldn't take him in then?”

But Dix didn't answer. They both knew she would write. And deep down inside herself she knew he'd come, would always come. That was the worst part of all.

Chapter Two

The broad plain south of the Clear Fork of the Brazos River was once dotted with buffalo. The great woollies were mostly gone now, slaughtered by hide hunters in the preceding decade. Cattle were arriving to take their place, rugged longhorn steers that had given birth to a new Texas economy following the devastation of war and reconstruction. The railroad was creeping ever westward, bringing with it people and civilization. Eighteen-eighty was witnessing an end to the unbridled freedoms of the frontier as they gave way to farms and ranches, towns and churches.

Not far from the cavalry post at Fort Griffin lay the ram­shackle collection of wooden huts and gambling houses known as The Flat. In its earlier days it had seen wild brawls and gunfights in its dusty streets. Thousands of dollars changed hands at the end of the buffalo-hunting season.

The town had sheltered more than its share of notorious characters, everyone from Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson to Big Nose Kate Elder and Lottie Deno, the queen of the poker table. They'd moved on now, as had all but a shadow of the cavalry. What remained of the place provided comfort and diversion to the soldiers and supplies to the ranches that had begun appearing in Shackelford County.

Just across the river from The Flat lay a picket cabin of earth and logs. A horse corral stood nearby, shaded by the cottonwoods that spread out from the river. On any given day the corral might contain a dozen mustang ponies, rounded up from the plain. An occasional army mount might be there as well, retrieved from a renegade Comanche or army deserter and awaiting redemption at the standard rate promised by the post commander.

That particular morning two young men were busy with the ponies. The third, an older man, sat on a boulder preparing to read a letter. Those who knew Caulfield Blake wouldn't have been concerned by his somber appearance, the cold eyes and the stiff posture. He was nearing forty, a long life for a man who'd ridden four years with Forrest, endured seven long cattle drives north to Kansas, and spent the last four years chasing mustangs on the plains.

But there
something different about him. His hands trembled slightly as he tore open the simple white envelope and began reading.

“My dear Caulie,” the words said. “All has not been well with us of late.”

The trembling grew worse as the words swept through his mind. He could hear her speaking, remember her face, the softness of her touch.

“Colonel Simpson has taken it in his head to build a dam across Carpenter Creek. Dix Stewart suggested you might help us. I know it will not be easy for you to return, but your family and friends are in need of your help. Please come.”

The letter was signed simply “Hannah.” There was no “affectionately yours” as in those longer, passionate notes written during the war.

“Why should I?” he asked, staring at the horses.

He reread the words. Dix suggested, did he? Things couldn't be well if Dix needed help. No one, excepting perhaps himself, found it more difficult to ask help than Dix Stewart.

“Simpson!” The word left a sour taste in his mouth even now. Colonel Simpson? What had the old man ever commanded that gave him the right to that title? It was a mockery of everything Blake had fought for, a corruption of the concept of honor itself. Yes, honor. For Caulfield Blake, honor had always exacted a high price. He'd ached and bled across a hundred fields during the war, driven on when others scurried away because duty had always demanded sacrifice from the Blakes. Only after Bedford Forrest himself declared the cause lost had Blake's Texans turned their horses homeward. Then, back home among the familiar rocks and hills above Carpenter Creek, duty had called again.

It was Simpson himself that had offered ¿he five-pointed star to Caulfield Blake.

“Your father settled this county when there were more Comanches hereabouts than rattlesnakes,” the old man had said. “People know the name Blake, and your wartime service hasn't hurt you any. These Yanks have bought your horses. They think they can trust you to uphold justice.”

Those words had drawn Blake into Simpson's web, attracted him like a juicy carrot entices a cantankerous mustang. Blake hadn't noticed the brooding eyes that lurked behind Simpson's easy smile and disarming manner.

“Don't do it,” Hannah had warned. “No Simpson's ever done a Blake or a Siler a favor without measuring its price on a loaded scale. He'll blame you for every hardship, Caulie, and he'll heap all the unpleasant tasks on your doorstep.”

But the other choice had been to accept a dozen bluecoat soldiers permanently stationed at the courthouse. Caulfield Blake pinned on the badge.

For a time all had gone well. Blake chased a band of renegades off the range and sent a road agent named Maley along to the State Police in Austin. He organized the farms and ranches against Comanche raiders, and the Indians found the price of stealing beeves and horses too high. Then, when it seemed that perhaps the war could be put behind them all, an Indiana judge named Franklin Derry arrived in Simpson and took over the courthouse.

No sooner had the dust from Derry's coach settled than the judge was announcing new taxes.

“You people have had it far too easy,” Derry declared. “The values placed on your land are too low by half. We'll tend to that.”

Each ranch and farm felt the bite of Derry's tax bills, but the Simpson place, being largest, was hurt worst of all. And when the “colonel” couldn't bribe or threaten his way out of payment, open war erupted.

“It's up to you to collect these monies,” Judge Derry had told Blake.

“I won't,” Blake had responded. “They're your taxes. You collect 'em.”

Derry had grinned and walked straight to the telegraph office. In three days a company of soldiers arrived to do the collecting. Those lacking the cash found themselves stripped of every possession. Confiscated livestock filled a corral, and the ground floor of the courthouse was crammed with furniture and assorted articles of clothing and hardware. Only those few fortunate ranchers like Blake and Dix Stewart who'd sold horses and cattle to the bluecoat cavalry had Yankee dollars to pay the heavy taxes. The hardest hit glared with contempt at the tin star on Caulfield Blake's shirt.

“Simpson stirs 'em up,” Dix complained. “That old buzzard's gone around tellin' how you rode two of his boys to their graves in the war. As if you weren't out there in front every single time! And him callin' himself colonel now, too! Caulie, trouble's bound to come o' this.”

And it had. When Simpson's friends in Austin hadn't been able to help him evade the taxes or replace Franklin Derry, Simpson sent his youngest son, thirty-year-old Austin, to tend to the matter. An hour short of twilight on a brisk Wednesday in mid-March, Austin Simpson drew a pistol and shot Judge Derry four times.

Even those who hadn't cared much for the carpetbagger judge were stunned. And when Austin paraded through town boasting of the act, the soldiers acted. A young lieutenant arrested Austin and dragged the young man toward the livery. Halfway there a mob of Simpson ranch hands clubbed the officer to death and set Austin loose.

Open warfare broke out. Austin led his father's hands across the valley, threatening neighbors and hunting down any blue-coats that emerged from town. The cavalry reacted by sending a whole company down from Fort Griffin.

“They'll kill my boy,” Simpson said when he pleaded with Blake to ride out after Austin. “I lost the others fighting Yankees. They were good soldiers. You led 'em yourself, Blake. Don't let these Yanks kill Austin.”

“He'll come to trial if he gives up,” Blake promised. “After that, it's up to the court. You know half the town saw him shoot that judge. He's like as not to hang.”

“Anything can happen in a courtroom,” Simpson had said, grinning. “You just get him back to town.”

“I was a fool,” Blake mumbled, staring out across the broken prairie. “Henry Simpson never told the straight truth a day in his whole life.”

Long, hard years of war had taken their toll, and the years of peace that had followed had too often been torn by Comanche raids and violent ambushes. Too many friends had been buried. Caulfield Blake set off into the hills alone. And though bands of cavalry crisscrossed the hills above the Colorado in search of Austin Simpson, Blake located the young killer almost immediately. On a moonless night the first week of April, Blake slipped past Austin's cohorts, clubbed the outlaw across the head, and sneaked him five miles through friend and foe to the jailhouse in Simpson.

“I brought him in,” Blake told Henry Simpson. “Now it's up to the law.”

Simpson never replied. Instead he brought in lawyers from New Orleans and made speeches about a higher authority than statehouses and courtrooms.

“No jury in Texas will find my boy guilty,” Simpson cried. “He's a patriot like his fallen brothers, a hero to his native land.”

The trial went sour early. The Republican governor sent out a smart lawyer from Austin to argue the state's case, and the three New Orleans dandies spent most of their time making grand speeches. The Austin prosecutor just got one witness after another to swear Austin Simpson shot the judge down in the streets. No one knew Derry to carry so much as a pocket pistol.

“Austin Simpson did his county a service by ridding it of a bloodsucking tyrant,” one lawyer countered. Another quoted from
Julius Caesar.

“These folks saw what they saw,” the prosecutor reminded the jury. “You can't find Austin Simpson other than guilty of cold­blooded murder.”

And so they did. The hangman arrived the following day, and a gnarled old oak just outside of town was chosen as the gallows. A pair of soldiers erected a small stand with a trapdoor. Their hammering sent shivers down Caulfield Blake's back.

“No one'd ever know if you were to take an early supper and leave the keys on your desk,” Simpson said the day before the hanging was to take place. “You might find a way for Austin to slip away when you take him out in the morning. Lots of things could happen.”

BOOK: The Return of Caulfield Blake
9.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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